Monday, December 04, 2006

Caesar and the Romans

Reading the excellent new Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006), by Adrian Goldsworthy, I was reminded of Cato the Elder, who ended each speech in the Roman Senate, no matter its topic, with "Moreover I advise that Carthage must be destroyed." Some days I feel that I should end every post, no matter its topic, with "Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now."

Goldsworthy is best known as a military historian, and his accounts of Caesar's campaigns and feats of generalship are detailed, clear, and always interesting. Caesar's confidence, inventiveness, and willingness to try unusual tactics put me in the mind of Ulysses Grant (though without Grant's crucial willingness to invest trusted subordinates with great freedom and power (and yes, I realize I'm drawing the line of influence in the wrong direction)). Caesar himself remains, necessarily, something of a cipher: he is, as expected, smart, canny, and ferociously ambitious, and he inspires great loyalty in his soldiers, but he is also at various times brutal, merciful, egalitarian, authoritarian, friendly, and cold. The gaps in historical knowledge, along with the uncertain motivations of those of his near-contemporaries whose writings have reached us, force those contradictions to remain unresolved and Caesar, thus, to remain a complicated figure.

Throughout the book, Goldsworthy draws on Cicero, to whose copious writings we trace so much of our knowledge of the period, and who is one of the most perpetually interesting Romans. Brilliant and ambitious, and with a deep understanding of human nature and the uses of power, he is forever building and maintaining alliances, like a man who lives in the shadow of an enormous dike and knows the dangers of inattention. But his principles are only as strong as his backers, and in his craven willingness to blow with the prevailing winds, to change in whatever way is needed to preserve himself, his power, and his image as a statesman, he reminded me of no one so much as Joe Lieberman. Cicero at least lived in a time in which to fail to make self-preservation a priority might mean one's life; all Lieberman gets out of the deal is an occasional kiss from the Derelict in Chief and a ready chair on the Sunday morning blowhard shows.

Goldsworthy also does well with what is, for me, the most important job of the Roman historian: relating the detailed anecdotes that make the individual Roman leaders, and their ridiculously dramatic lives and deaths. For example, here's how he tells of the gruesome end of Cato the Younger, who, defeated by Caesar in the Civil War, found himself with the choice to flee, surrender, or commit suicide. Retiring to his room,
He complained when he noticed that his son and servants had removed his sword, and insisted that they return it, but then went back to his reading. His choice of work was significant, Plato's Phaedo, a discussion on the immortality of the soul, but throughout his life he had pursued the study of philosophy. Finally, without warning, he stopped reading, took up his sword and stabbed himself in the stomach. Teh wound was bad, but not immediately mortal, and once they heard the commotion his son and slaves rushed to him. A doctor was brought and Cato's wound cleansed and bound up. However, he had never lacked determination or courage, and once they had gone the forty-eight-year-old tore open the stitches and began ripping out his own entrails. he was dead before they could restrain him. When Casear heard the news he said that he bitterly begrudged the opportunity of pardoning his most determined opponent, but to a great extent Cato had acted out of a desire to avoid his enemy's mercy.

Of such detail, a remarkable amount of which has come down to us through the millennia, are the attractions of Roman history woven. Its mix of personalities and events makes it inexhaustible; the more I read about the classical world, the more easily I understand early curricula that focused on it to the exclusion of all else. At the very least, you'd never be bored.

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